RISING SUN — November is National Native American Heritage Month, and patrons at the Rising Sun Branch Library commemorated this on Nov. 2, when they viewed Native American artifacts up close and received a history lesson about the tribes native to the Susquehanna River area.
Debbie Saylor, an archaeological researcher and a curator at the Indian Steps Museum in Airville, Pa., said she wants archaeology to be open to citizen archaeologists, not just experts who studied the field in college.
“History, especially prehistoric history, belongs to everyone,” Saylor said.
“We’re interested in having all of us uncover our history together.”
According to Saylor, the Indian Steps Museum was founded by a wealthy lawyer named John Edward Vandersloot in the early 20th century. Vandersloot, who was fond of hunting, fishing and discovering artifacts, purchased the property and built the museum to house the artifacts he found.
The “Indian Steps” name is based on “steps” along the Susquehanna River that are believed to have been used as footholds for Native Americans to fish along the water. But Saylor said this legend is not what it seems. The so-called “steps” are merely potholes, she said, carved by pebbles tumbling in the current.
“Why would the Native Americans spend so much energy chipping out this area when they could walk on the shore,” she said.
“They had boats and fishing wares where they would actually corral the fish and spear the fish … These people were very, very intelligent. They did not want to waste resources and they did not want to waste energy to get the job done.”
Inside the museum, more than 10,000 artifacts have been embedded within the walls, floors and ceilings of the building, according to Saylor.
In the past, Saylor said archaeologists have excavated sites by removing the entire first layer of soil and then digging, however, that technique is long gone as researchers do not want to disturb the area where they are excavating.
That’s because much of the information archaeologists are able to glean from excavations are not only related to the artifacts themselves but also to the location and depth that they were discovered.
Instead, archaeologists now use ground penetrating radar to pinpoint specific areas to dig, Saylor said.
While researchers cannot carbon date a stone tool because it does not contain any carbon, they can used charcoal around the tool to date the layer.
When looking for a potential dig site, Saylor advised people to look for debitage, or flakes created by chipped stone tools.
For people who are performing their own archaeological dig, Saylor said what they find can provide insight into who the people that used the object were, how they lived, what they ate and other aspects of their culture.
“You’re not looking for the artifact,” she said. “You’re looking for what you’re finding out about the artifact.”
Saylor brought some standalone artifacts to her presentation, including various tools, cookware and replicas of sacred container that Native Americans in the area would have used. She said that most triangular stone artifacts that people find along the Susquehanna River are not in fact arrowheads, but rather are spearheads.
Saylor also said that people are more likely to find axes close to rivers because Native Americans used waterways to transport logs and they would have chopped trees down closer to the water so as not to have to transport them long distances.
Also in Saylor’s haul were containers made of steatite, or soapstone. Native Americans often ground up food, in the process grinding talc and other inedible material from the container itself which caused dental issues.
“When you’re grinding all that stuff down, you’re grinding all that crushed stone and gravel and you’re eating that,” she said. “It gets into the meat, the stew, whatever you’re eating. Most people died from sepsis (blood infection) … That’s because the teeth were ground down, you’ve exposed the root, you’ve exposed all the dentin, and you got blood poisoning.”
The leading causes of death for Native Americans centuries ago were sepsis and blunt force trauma. Specifically for women, she said leading causes of death were childbirth and burns sustained tending their fire while cooking.
Saylor told the Whig that her passion for archaeology started as just a hobby.
“I wanted something very calming, so both my husband and I started just artifact hunting along the Susquehanna River on different islands,” she said. “When we were picking things up, I was finding out I didn’t know anything about them.”
Saylor emphasized that “archaeology and history is for everybody,” and she wants to share what she knows with others.
“When I started out, there were a lot of academic snobs that wouldn’t really interact with the public,” she said. “So I said if I ever get a museum or have access to something, I would want to share my knowledge with everybody else.”
If people want to sign up for an excavation through the Indian Steps Museum or get on an email list to learn about lectures and other events the museum is holding, they can visit indiansteps.org.